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"In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive and daring Allied invasion of Europe that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. There, I underwent a life-changing experience. As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done. Ten years later, I
"In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive and daring Allied invasion of Europe that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. There, I underwent a life-changing experience. As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done. Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of Americans meant to history. It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced."
In this superb book, Tom Brokaw goes out into America, to tell through the stories of individual men and women the story of a generation, America's citizen heroes and heroines who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America. This generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values—duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility for oneself. In this book, you will meet people whose everyday lives reveal how a generation persevered through war, and were trained by it, and then went on to create interesting and useful lives and the America we have today.
"At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world. They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere. They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest. They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before, because in a deep sense they didn't think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.
"This book, I hope, will in some small way pay tribute to those men and women who have given us the lives we have today—an American family portrait album of the greatest generation."
In this book you'll meet people like Charles Van Gorder, who set up during D-Day a MASH-like medical facility in the middle of the fighting, and then came home to create a clinic and hospital in his hometown. You'll hear George Bush talk about how, as a Navy Air Corps combat pilot, one of his assignments was to read the mail of the enlisted men under him, to be sure no sensitive military information would be compromised. And so, Bush says, "I learned about life." You'll meet Trudy Elion, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, one of the many women in this book who found fulfilling careers in the changed society as a result of the war. You'll meet Martha Putney, one of the first black women to serve in the newly formed WACs. And you'll meet the members of the Romeo Club (Retired Old Men Eating Out), friends for life.
Through these and other stories in The Greatest Generation, you'll relive with ordinary men and women, military heroes, famous people of great achievement, and community leaders how these extraordinary times forged the values and provided the training that made a people and a nation great.
"Full of wonderful, wrenching tales of a generation of heroes. Tom Brokaw reminds us of what we are capable of as a people. An inspiring read for those who wish their spirits lifted."
— General Colin L. Powell (ret.)
— The Wall Street Journal
"Written with love and grace ... a book I will keep forever on my shelves."
— Frank McCourt, author of 'Tis
"Heartfelt ... A sweeping tribute to Americans who saved the world. It offers welcome inspiration."
— The Washington Times
Don't miss the heartwarming New York Times bestseller that gives voice to The Greatest Generation:
The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections
Coming in July 2001 from Dell
"This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." —Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The year of my birth, 1940, was the fulcrum of America in the twentieth century, when the nation was balanced precariously between the darkness of the Great Depression on one side and the storms of war in Europe and the Pacific on the other. It was a critical time in the shaping of this nation and the world, equal to the revolution of 1776 and the perils of the Civil War. Once again the American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment. They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.
Many of them had been born just twenty years earlier than I, in a time of national promise, optimism, and prosperity, when all things seemed possible as the United States was swiftly taking its place as the most powerful nation in the world. World War I was over, America's industrial might was coming of age with the rise of the auto industry and the nascent communications industry, Wall Street was booming, and the popular culture was rich with the likes of Babe Ruth, Eugene O'Neill, D. W. Griffith, and a new author on the scene, F. Scott Fitzgerald. What those unsuspecting infants could not have realized, of course, was that these were temporary conditions, a false spring to a life that would be buffeted by winds of change dangerous and unpredictable, so fierce that they threatened not just America but the very future of the planet.
Nonetheless, 1920 was an auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen. The U.S. population had topped 106 million people, and the landscape was changing rapidly from agrarian to urban, even though one in three Americans still lived on a farm. Women were gaining the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and KDKA in Pittsburgh was broadcasting the first radio signals across the middle of America. Prohibition was beginning, but so was the roaring lifestyle that came with the flouting of Prohibition and the culture that produced it. In far-off Russia the Bolshevik revolution was a bloody affair, but its American admirers were unable to stir comparable passions here.
Five years later this American child born in 1920 still seemed to be poised for a life of ever greater prosperity, opportunity, and excitement. President Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge was a benign presence in the White House, content to let the bankers, industrialists, and speculators run the country as they saw fit.
As the twenties roared along, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame were giving Saturdays new meaning with their college football heroics. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were raising the spectacle of heavyweight boxing matches to new heights of frenzy. Baseball was a daytime game and a true national pastime, from the fabled Yankee Stadium to the sandlots in rural America.
The New Yorker was launched, and the place of magazines occupied a higher order. Flappers were dancing the Charleston; Fitzgerald was publishing The Great Gatsby; the Scopes trial was under way in Tennessee, with Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in a passionate and theatrical debate on evolution versus the Scriptures. A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the beginning of a long struggle to force America to face its shameful policies and practices on race.
By the time this young American who had such a promising start reached the age of ten, his earlier prospects were shattered; the fault lines were active everywhere: the stock market was struggling to recover from the crash of 1929, but the damage was too great. U.S. income was falling fast. Thirteen hundred banks closed. Businesses were failing everywhere, sending four and a half million people onto the streets with no safety net. The average American farm family had an annual cash income of four hundred dollars.
Herbert Hoover, as president, seemed to be paralyzed in the face of spreading economic calamity; he was a distant figure of stern bearing whose reputation as an engineering genius and management wizard was quickly replaced by cruel caricatures of his aloofness from the plight of the ever larger population of poor.
Congress passed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, establishing barriers to world trade and exacerbating an already raging global recession. Yet Henry Luce managed to launch Fortune, a magazine specializing in business affairs. United Airlines and American Airlines, still in their infancy, managed to stay airborne. Lowell Thomas began a nightly national radio newscast on NBC and CBS. The Lone Ranger series was heard on radio.
Overseas, three men were plotting to change the world: Adolf Hitler in Germany, Joseph Stalin in Russia, and Mao Zedong in China. In American politics, the New York governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was planning his campaign for the 1932 presidential election.
By 1933, when the baby born in 1920 was entering teenage years, the promise of that early childhood was shattered by crashing world economies. American farmers were able to produce only about sixteen bushels of corn per acre, and the prices were so low that it was more efficient to feed the corn to the hogs than take it to market. It was the year my mother moved with her parents and sister off their South Dakota farm and into a nearby small town, busted by the markets and the merciless drought. They took one milk cow, their pride, and their determination to just keep going somehow.
My mother, who graduated from high school at sixteen, had no hope of affording college, so she went to work in the local post office for a dollar a day. She was doing better than her father, who earned ten cents an hour working at a nearby grain elevator.
My father, an ambitious and skilled construction equipment operator, raced around the Midwest in his small Ford coupe, working hellishly long hours on road crews, hoping he could save enough in the warm weather months to get through another long winter back home in the small wood-frame hotel his sisters ran for railroad men, traveling salesmen, and local itinerants in the Great Plains village founded by his grandfather Richard Brokaw, a Civil War veteran who came to the Great Plains as a cook for railroad crews.
A mass of homeless and unemployed men drifted across the American landscape, looking for work or a handout wherever they could find it. More than thirty million Americans had no income of any kind. The American military had more horses than tanks, and its only action had been breaking up a demonstration of World War I veterans demanding their pension bonuses a year earlier.
Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office as president of the United States, promising a New Deal for the beleaguered American people, declaring to a nation with more than fifteen million people out of work, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
He pushed through an Emergency Banking Act, a Federal Emergency Relief Act, a National Industrial Recovery Act, and by 1935 set in motion the legislation that would become the Social Security system.
Not everyone was happy. Rich Americans led by the Du Ponts, the founders of General Motors, and big oil millionaires founded the Liberty League to oppose the New Deal. Privately, in the salons of the privileged, Roosevelt was branded a traitor to his class.
In Germany, a former painter with a spellbinding oratorical style took office as chancellor and immediately set out to seize control of the political machinery of Germany with his National Socialist German Workers party, known informally as the Nazis. Adolf Hitler began his long march to infamy. He turned on the Jews, passing laws that denied them German citizenship, codifying the anti-Semitism that eventually led to the concentration camps and the gas chambers, an act of hatred so deeply immoral it will mark the twentieth century forever.
By the late thirties in America, anti-Semitism was the blatant message of Father James Coughlin, a messianic Roman Catholic priest with a vast radio audience. Huey Long, the brilliant Louisiana populist, came to power, first as governor and then as a U.S. senator, preaching in his own spellbinding fashion the power of the little guy against the evils of Wall Street and corporate avarice.
When our young American was reaching eighteen, in 1938, the flames of war were everywhere in the world: Hitler had seized Austria; the campaign against Jews had intensified with Kristallnacht, a vicious and calculated campaign to destroy all Jewish businesses within the Nazi realm. Japan continued its brutal and genocidal war against the Chinese; and in Russia, Stalin was presiding over show trials, deporting thousands to Siberia, and summarily executing his rivals in the Communist party. The Spanish Civil War was a losing cause for the loyalists, and a diminutive fascist general, Francisco Franco, began a reign that would last forty years.
In this riotous year the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, believed he had saved his country with a pact negotiated with Hitler at Munich. He returned to England to declare, "I believe it is peace for our time . . . peace with honor."
It was neither.
At home, Roosevelt was in his second term, trying to balance the continuing need for extraordinary efforts to revive the economy with what he knew was the great peril abroad. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a limit on hours worked and a minimum wage. The federal government began a system of parity payments to farmers and subsidized foreign wheat sales.
In the fall of 1938, Dwight David Eisenhower, a career soldier who had grown up on a small farm outside of Abilene, Kansas, was a forty-eight-year-old colonel in the U.S. Army. He had an infectious grin and a fine reputation as a military planner, but he had no major combat command experience. The winds of war were about to carry him to the highest peaks of military glory and political reward. Ike, as he was called, would become a folksy avatar of his time.
America was entertained by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Woody Guthrie, the music of Hoagy Carmichael, the big-screen film magic of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda.
At the beginning of a new decade, 1940, just twenty years after our young American entered a world of such great promise and prosperity, it was clear to all but a few delusional isolationists that war would define this generation's coming of age.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and Romania had all fallen to Nazi aggression. German troops controlled Paris. In the east, Stalin was rapidly building up one of the greatest ground armies ever to defend Russia and communism.
Japan signed a ten-year military pact with Germany and Italy, forming an Axis they expected would rule the world before the decade was finished.
Roosevelt, elected to his third term, again by a landslide, was preparing the United States, pushing through the Export Control Act to stop the shipment of war materials overseas. Contracts were arranged for a new military vehicle called the jeep. A fighter plane was developed. It would be designated the P-51 Mustang. Almost 20 percent of the budget FDR submitted to Congress was for defense needs. The first peacetime military draft in U.S. history was activated.
Roosevelt stayed in close touch with his friend, the new prime minister of England, Winston Churchill, who told the English: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." And "We shall not flag or fail . . . we shall fight on the seas and oceans . . . we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender."
Our twenty-year-old American learned something of war by reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, and something else about the human spirit by watching The Grapes of Wrath, the film based on John Steinbeck's novel, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.
The majority of black Americans were still living in the states of the former Confederacy, and they remained second-class citizens, or worse, in practice and law. Negro men were drafted and placed in segregated military units even as America prepared to fight a fascist regime that had as a core belief the inherent superiority of the Aryan people.
It had been a turbulent twenty years for our young American, and the worst and the best were yet to come. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Across America on that Sunday afternoon, the stunning news from the radio electrified the nation and changed the lives of all who heard it. Marriages were postponed or accelerated. College was deferred. Plans of any kind for the future were calibrated against the quickening pace of the march to war.
Shortly after the attack, Winston Churchill called FDR from the prime minister's country estate, Chequers. In his book The Grand Alliance, Churchill recounted the conversation. "Mr. President, what's this about Japan?" Roosevelt replied, "It's quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We're all in the same boat now."
Churchill couldn't have been happier. He would now have the manpower, the resources, and the political will of the United States actively engaged in this fight for survival. He wrote, "So we had won after all." A few days later, after Germany and Italy had declared war against the United States, Churchill wrote to Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, who was traveling to Russia, "The accession of the United States makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give us certain victory."
In America, young men were enlisting in the military by the hundreds of thousands. Farm kids from the Great Plains who never expected to see the ocean in their lifetimes signed up for the Navy; brothers followed brothers into the Marines; young daredevils who were fascinated by the new frontiers of flight volunteered for pilot training. Single young women poured into Washington to fill the exploding needs for clerical help as the political capital mobilized for war. Other women, their husbands or boyfriends off to basic training, learned to drive trucks or handle welding torches. The old rules of gender and expectation changed radically with what was now expected of this generation.
My mother and father, with my newborn brother and me in the backseat of the 1938 Ford sedan that would be our family car for the next decade, moved to that hastily constructed Army ammunition depot called Igloo, on the alkaline and sagebrush landscape of far southwestern South Dakota. I was three years old.
It was a monochromatic world, the bleak brown prairie, Army-green cars and trucks, khaki uniforms everywhere. My first impressions of women were not confined to those of my mother caring for my brothers and me at home. I can still see in my mind's eye a woman in overalls carrying a lunch bucket, her hair covered in a red bandanna, swinging out of the big Army truck she had just parked, headed for home at the end of a long day. Women in what had been men's jobs were part of the new workaday world of a nation at war.
Looking back, I can recall that the grown-ups all seemed to have a sense of purpose that was evident even to someone as young as four, five, or six. Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.
Indeed there was, and the scope of the national involvement was reflected in the numbers: by 1944, twelve million Americans were in uniform; war production represented 44 percent of the Gross National Product; there were almost nineteen million more workers than there had been five years earlier, and 35 percent of them were women. The nation was immersed in the war effort at every level.
The young Americans of this time constituted a generation birthmarked for greatness, a generation of Americans that would take its place in American history with the generations that had converted the North American wilderness into the United States and infused the new nation with self-determination embodied first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
At the end of the twentieth century the contributions of this generation would be in bold print in any review of this turbulent and earth-altering time. It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. They know how many of the best of their generation didn't make it to their early twenties, how many brilliant scientists, teachers, spiritual and business leaders, politicians and artists were lost in the ravages of the greatest war the world has seen.
The enduring contributions of this generation transcend gender. The world we know today was shaped not just on the front lines of combat. From the Great Depression forward, through the war and into the years of rebuilding and unparalleled progress on almost every front, women were essential to and leaders in the greatest national mobilization of resources and spirit the country had ever known. They were also distinctive in that they raised the place of their gender to new heights; they changed forever the perception and the reality of women in all the disciplines of American life.
Millions of men and women were involved in this tumultuous journey through adversity and achievement, despair and triumph. Certainly there were those who failed to measure up, but taken as a whole this generation did have a "rendezvous with destiny" that went well beyond the outsized expectations of President Roosevelt when he first issued that call to duty in 1936.
The stories that follow represent the lives of some of them. Each is distinctive and yet reflective of the common experiences of that trying time and this generation of greatness.
|The Time of their Lives||3|
|Thomas and Eileen Broderick: Insurance Agency Owner||17|
|Charles O. Van Gorder, MD: Surgeon||25|
|Wesley Ko: Printing Business||37|
|James and Dorothy Dowling: Highway Superintendent||45|
|Rev. Harry Reginald "Reg" Hammond: Anglican Priest||55|
|Lloyd Kilmer: County Clerk and Real Estate Executive||61|
|Gordon Larsen: Powerhouse Operator||69|
|John "Lefty" Caulfield: School Principal||77|
|Charles Briscoe: Boeing Engineer||89|
|Dorothy Haener: UAW Organizer||96|
|Bob Bush: Lumber and Building Supply Business||105|
|Joe Foss: U.S. Marine Corps Pilot||115|
|Leonard "Bud" Lomell: Lawyer||125|
|Women in Uniform and Out|
|Mary Hallaren: Colonel, U.S. Army, Women's Auxiliary Corps||139|
|Jeanne Holm: General, U.S. Air Force||139|
|Marion Rivers Nittel||151|
|Claudine "Scottie" Lingelbach: Teacher/Real Estate Agent||151|
|Alison Ely Campbell||151|
|Margaret Ray Ringenberg: Women's Air Force Service Pilot||163|
|Mary Louise Roberts Wilson: U.S. Army Nurse Corps||173|
|Martha Settle Putney: History Professor||185|
|Johnnie Holmes: Real Estate Investor||193|
|Luis Armijo: Schoolteacher||203|
|Nao Takasugi: California State Assemblyman||215|
|Norman Mineta: California Congressman||215|
|Love, Marriage, Commitment|
|John and Peggy Assenzio: Salesman/Teacher||233|
|Gaylord and Carrie Lee Nelson: Governor and Senator||249|
|Jeanette Gagne Norton||257|
|George Bush: President of the United States||273|
|Ben Bradlee: Journalist||281|
|Art Buchwald: Writer||287|
|Andy Rooney: Journalist||293|
|Julia Child: Chef||299|
|Gertrude Belle "Trudy" Elion: Chemist||303|
|Chesterfield Smith: Attorney, President of the American Bar Association||307|
|Al Neuharth: Founder, USA Today||319|
|Maurice "Hank" Greenberg: CEO, American International Group||319|
|Mark Hatfield: U.S. Senator||333|
|Robert Dole: U.S. Senator, Presidential Candidate||341|
|Daniel Inouye: U.S. Senator||349|
|Caspar Weinberger: Secretary of Defense||357|
|Lloyd Cutler: Counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton||365|
|George Shultz: Cabinet Member||369|
|Arthur Schlesinger: Historian||369|
|Ed Guthman: Journalist, Press Secretary to Robert F. Kennedy||377|
|The Twilight of their Lives||381|
Three Women and How They Served
Marion Rivers Nittel: "A full-blown spirit of patriotism was in every heart."
Claudine "Scottie" Lingelbach: "I want to tell my grandchildren I was more than a pinup girl in the Great War."
Alison Ely Campbell: "You had to do your part."
Marion Rivers's life was centered on her family, her job, and her small city of Attleboro, Massachusetts, until the war caught up to America. Then the company for which she worked, General Plate Division of Metals and Controls Corporation, was immediately forced to convert from making rolled gold plate for jewelry to producing technical instruments for military purposes.
She remembers the pride of all the employees when the company was awarded a large E for excellence and the Army and Navy organized a ceremony to present a banner to be flown outside the plant. I can still see that flag," Marion says, "snapping on the flagpole whenever I entered and left the building." She believes it was the last time "in the history of our country when a full-blown spirit of true patriotism was in every heart."
Claudine "Scottie" Scott shared that spirit of patriotism during her freshman year at the University of Kansas in the autumn of 1940. "It was a fun, exciting time," she says, "but by the following fall, the campus had changed considerably. All of the boys were gone." Scottie decided to enlist in the Navy's female auxiliary, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), and when the student newspaper, The Daily Kansan, asked why, she recalled a cartoon of two WACs walking down the street, one saying to the other, "I want to tell my grandchildren I was more than a pinup girl in the Great War."
Scottie wanted to be in on the action as well. As she says, "My generation was highly patriotic. Back when I was in junior high the words ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE were carved at the entrance to the school. Those words affected me in many ways. I served."
She applied for a commission in the WAVES. Not only was she commissioned, she was assigned to the prestigious duty of serving on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She was an administrative assistant and a courier, delivering highly classified papers to the White House every day. "I went to a basement room -- the War Room -- and they'd open the door only six inches to take the report from me. It was a log of the fighting going on all over the world."
Alison Ely was doing graduate work in California. She was from a prominent Oregon family, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked her parents wanted her to return to Portland. She had other ideas. She got a job at an Oakland, California, shipyard, saying now, "You had to do your part."
In Attleboro, just outside her company's plant, Marion Rivers came to know the war effort through the troop trains that often stopped on a nearby siding, headed for Camp Myles Standish, a major point of embarkation for Europe.
When the trains stopped, the women in the plant would be summoned to a conference room to assemble baskets of fruit, candy, gum, and cigarettes for the GIs. Marion and the others would first head for the ladies' room "to remove our silk stockings, which were as scarce as hen's teeth -- shredding those stockings would have been catastrophic." Bare-legged, they scuttled up the cinders on the steep railroad bed. The GIs, she remembers, cheered as she and the other young women distributed the baskets, laughing and waving at the young men who were headed for the unknown. "Later we'd be back in the office, covered with coal dust," Marion says, "but we loved it."
America in the forties was a nation of railroad tracks and trains. Railroad stations in small towns and cities were crowded with men in uniform, their wives and sweethearts giving a last embrace before the trains departed for a distant port and for the war in Europe or the Pacific. Later, those same trains returned with the young men, now greatly changed. They brought home the wounded and they bore the caskets of those who didn't make it. Marion remembers later in the war, when the trains materialized again in Attleboro, this time headed in the opposite direction. These trains had no troops cheering. The young women didn't scramble up the steep embankments with baskets of fruit and candy. The shades were drawn on the returning trains. "They didn't stop," Marion recalls. "These were the wounded coming home."
On the West Coast, Alison Ely was getting an entirely different view of the war. In the shipyard, she was assigned to the administrative offices, but that was boring and tedious. This highly educated daughter of Oregon affluence asked to go to work on the assembly line and stuck with her request even though the executive in charge grumbled, "All she'll ever do is get married."
She was assigned to work on the urgent construction of huge oil tankers. Her job was keeping track of the welding process, which meant mastering a complicated set of blueprints and diagrams. Her training was cursory at best. Forced to improvise her understanding, she often took other women workers into the ladies' room, where they labored together over the schematics until they figured out the intricate requirements.
In Washington, Scottie's interest in the fighting went well beyond the messages she carried from war room to war room. Her boyfriend from the University of Kansas, Dale Lingelbach, was a second lieutenant with the Army's 9th Infantry in England. She knew he was scheduled to be part of the Normandy invasion.
Because she knew the plans for D-Day, when she was asked if she'd ever like to attend a White House press conference, she chose that day, June 6, 1944. She remembers it was in the Oval Office and President Roosevelt's little Scottish terrier, Fala, was running free through the small crowd assembled there. She also remembers FDR, then in the last year of his life, "dressed in all white, with white hair and a very ruddy complexion."
Earlier that day FDR shared with the nation his prayer for the success of D-Day. In a radio broadcast he said, "In this poignant moment I ask you to join with me in prayer; "Almighty God: our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set on a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.... They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won."
It was a long and heartfelt prayer and it is difficult in this day of instant communication from the battlefield to appreciate fully the absence of information about just what was happening there on the beaches of Normandy. Perhaps it was just as well, for D-Day was chaos, a bloody hell. The anxieties of those at home were high enough just listening to the somber and candid prayer of the president and the stream of news bulletins on the radio.
My mother remembers going to a hairdresser that morning and finding the young woman distraught, near collapse in tears. Her fiancé, she explained, was a paratrooper and she was sure he was taking part in the invasion. In fact, he was, and he survived. Several weeks later he sent her his parachute and told her to have a wedding dress made from it.
About the same time, Scottie was notified that her boyfriend, Dale, had been seriously wounded by German artillery as his unit pushed across Europe. When he was shipped home, they were married in September 1945, at the Richmond, Virginia, hospital where he spent two years recovering from his wounds. Scottie had loved her wartime assignment in Washington, but she wanted to be married and raise a family.
In Massachusetts, Marion Rivers and her friends spent long hours at the factory and then joined the rest of Attleboro in providing a home away from home for the troops from nearby Camp Myles Standish. They invited them to their homes for holidays or a Sunday meal; occasionally there would be an ice skating party on a local pond. "Once a week several buses filled with young women and our ever present chaperones would take us to wonderful dances on the base. Big-name bands on their way overseas to entertain the troops would play," Marion remembers.
On one occasion a familiar young man insisted on dancing with Marion, all the while saying, "Betcha don't know who I am." Of course she did. It was Mickey Rooney.
Other memories linger in a darker corner. Once at a dance the young women were asked how many could type. Marion volunteered. "We were taken to the camp hospital where all the beds and stretchers were filled with the wounded. They were being shipped to hospitals near their homes and we rolled typewriters from bed to bed, taking information off dog tags, talking to the men, placing phone calls for them. I have never forgotten the sight of so many broken bodies. I wondered how many of them had been on those trains going off to war when we ran up the railroad banks with our baskets of fruit and candy. That evening turned into twenty-four hours, and I think I remember every moment."
Alison Ely married midway through the war and left the shipyard to follow her husband, John W. Campbell, to training camps before he shipped out for the Pacific. It was the beginning of a life of learning to fend for herself, including getting to the hospital on her own when their baby was due, with no other family around.
When Scottie's husband, Dale, was released from the hospital, they moved to Schenectady, New York, where he had a job with General Electric. Before long they decided they wanted to return to the Midwest. They moved to Carthage, Missouri, a small, quiet town and he went to work for the Smith Brothers company, the famous cough drop concern.
It was a pleasant, prosperous life. They had two children: a girl, Cynthia, and a son, Randy. Dale was promoted to vice president. The future looked bright, but at the age of forty-five, Scottie's carefully ordered world came apart. Dale contracted melanoma and died. Scottie faced a world not very friendly to single women.
She had difficulty obtaining credit after Dale died simply because she was a widow. Sears gave her a hard time. So did a pharmacy where she tried to open a charge account. She was stunned and angry. She learned not to tell businesses of her marital status. "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. You can give up or decide to do something with your life. I had a degree in business administration but I knew I would never rise higher than secretary, so I thought, Where can a woman make the most money?"
This was 1968. Job opportunities for women had yet to catch up with the rising tide of feminism. Like many women of her generation, Scottie is strong and self-reliant but a little reluctant to be closely identified with the women's movement. She speaks for many in her age group when she says, "I'm not a radical person because I believe that has done more to turn people off." At the same time she's quick to add, "But I've always believed in equal access to jobs." Still, she was practical enough to realize that her choices were limited to what were considered to be women's jobs in a community the size of Carthage.
So Scottie went the traditional route and qualified for a teacher's certificate. Besides, it was where she could bring to life that junior high motto from so long ago, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve."
She became a civics teacher at Neosho High in Carthage. She set out to bring to the children of the sixties and seventies the values that marked her generation. Patriotism. Respect for the presidency. Love of country. She felt a special obligation to tell them about World War II, the war of their parents. It was the beginning of the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies, but in Carthage she could still get the attention of the kids by staging mock political conventions. When she taught a section on the Roaring Twenties she came to class dressed as a flapper. Now, ruefully, she doubts she could have the same success.
It was hard enough, she says, to talk to the young people during Watergate. At first she believed in President Nixon and said so. When she realized he was lying, however, she shared her change of heart with her students. "It was hard, because I was trying to teach respect for the presidency." As for President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Scottie says, "Watergate was hard enough, but what do you tell the students today?
"I don't think my teaching would be the same now," she says. "I learned about patriotism through my school and family and I don't think you can get those values across in schools now. It's a little square to say you're patriotic. I would like to think that if the United States were attacked we'd band together, but I'm not sure." If there's a common lament of this generation, that is it: where is the old-fashioned patriotism that got them through so much heartache and sacrifice?
Marion Rivers, who married Karl Nittel after the war, wonders about that when she visits cemeteries to decorate graves on Memorial Day. "They never found my husband's brother, who was lost at sea. For many years I kept his gold naval wings in my jewelry box. Recently I gave them to his daughter, who was just two months old when he died. She never knew him. The war never ends; there are so many memories." Marion's husband keeps his World War II Army uniform hanging neatly in his closet wherever their live, a mute reminder of a time when he answered the call to duty.
Marion and Karl stayed in the Attleboro area, raising a son and a daughter. In 1968 she went back to work and developed a successful career as a writer for a technical company, the first woman in that firm to head a department. Nonetheless, she worries that too many women these days are more interested in work than they are in their family, simply because they want to have more things. As a child of the Depression, Marion doesn't remember that being a bad time because "all the neighbors got together to help each other. At Christmas they would go into the basements of their homes to make the gifts. No one has time for families anymore."
Marion's connection to the war years was brought painfully home when her daughter died of cancer at the age of forty-three. She then knew the full force of losing a child, and she thought of all those parents whose sons didn't return from the war. She was middle-aged when her daughter died, and it was a difficult flashback to the time that was at once so exciting and so difficult.
Alison Campbell had a similar midlife challenge. Her husband left her when she was fifty-five. She had not worked since the war. "That experience made me fairly tough. I took unfamiliar steps then, and I could do it again." She was also reading Betty Friedan's seminal book on the place of modern women, The Feminine Mystique. It spoke directly to her own conflicted life. Here she was, a highly educated woman, and yet when she had to go back into the workplace she took secretarial classes because she was so stuck in the strictures of her generation.
She got a secretarial job, but she moved up steadily before retiring as a technical writer and editor for IBM. Now she volunteers at a women's center, where they often refer to her a new generation of women who suddenly find themselves alone. Alison shares her stories of the war years, the husband abroad, the midlife divorce, and the lessons she learned.
After five yearsas a teacher, Scottie Lingelbach studied for a real estate license and started still another career. "The war made me self-reliant," she says. "I went to Washington not knowing anyone. My parents helped shape me. My father was very stern. He said, 'I'll educate you but then you're on your own.' When he gave me money to pay my way to officer's training, you can bet I had to pay it back."
Scottie stayed in real estate for eleven years, until the downturn in the eighties, but then she grew restless again and decided it was time to return to her origins. She moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where she had begun her adventurous life as a KU freshman in 1940. When she returned, the world had changed, but Scottie's values had not.
One of her daughters is divorced, a fact of modern life Scottie still finds unsettling. "Never did I realize it would happen in my family. Divorce was so uncommon." Not just uncommon, a bit of a scandal for Scottie's generation. That's not all that troubles her.
"What concerns me most about the future is the breakdown of the family. We were willing to make sacrifices so that I could stay home with the children. Now couples both work so they can be more affluent. We would rather delay gratification to ensure that our children had a nice home environment."
Alison Campbell shares similar sentiments. "During the war ... we learned to deal with deprivations -- rationing, being away from our husbands and families. I look at my daughter's generation and their big influence was television -- and that's created a tremendous demand for material goods. My brother and I used to play and build things but my grandchildren don't build things, they only buy them!"
And there are other memories of that time when her life took a sharp turn from the conventions of her upbringing. She has an indelible photograph in her mind "of getting to the shipyard at seven a.m., when it was still dark in the west, and the stars would be out and there would be these giant cranes, which looked like dinosaurs against the sky, and sparks flying from the big machines." It was a daily reminder that her world of Oregon affluence and California graduate school was forever altered.
These days, Scottie keeps busy as a docent at the Spencer Museum on the KU campus and as a student at the Citizen Police Academy three nights a week. She's also started discussing her experiences as a WAVE with her grandchildren and with students at elementary and middle schools in the Lawrence area -- about what America was like during World War II.
And when Scottie comes home at night after a trip to one of those schools, or after a meeting of one of the committees she serves on at KU, or after a round of golf -- she now rides nine holes and walks nine -- she can, at the age of seventy-five, look back on a life of service and self-reliance, a life of strong values and of an unapologetic love of country.
When she goes into her modest kitchen in Lawrence, Scottie is reminded of that long-ago time when she began her life of service. When she was leaving the WAVES in 1945, the staff at the Joint Chiefs of Staff allowed her to take from the metallic war maps a handful of the tiny magnetic airplanes used to mark battles around the world. Then, they were symbols of terrible battles in distant places, of the powerful struggle to preserve freedom. Now, they keep in place on her refrigerator Scottie's reminders of what's coming up next in her long, rich life.
Excerpt reprinted from THE GREATEST GENERATION by Tom Brokaw. Copyright © 1998 by Tom Brokaw. All rights reserved.
Tom Brokaw: It meant a lot to me, obviously, and was a labor of love, but the reaction has been overwhelming, mostly because I didn't anticipate it would touch so many different generations.
Tom Brokaw: I do, and I think that this generation should know that the greatest generation has a lot of faith in the young people today. They are kind of in awe of the mental intelligence and cyberspace and a whole new way of communication, grateful this generation will not have the challenges of their grandparents. It will be unlikely we will have a Great Depression again, and God knows we don't want another world war.
Tom Brokaw: I think it depends on the individual. For example, Pat Buchanan, who had a prominent role at CNN, was and is an ideologue, and part of his mission was to persuade people to accept his point of view. Geraldo Rivera has another point of view and has no qualms about advertising it. I have always seen my role as a traditional journalist who tells the facts, not trying to move people in one direction or the other.
Tom Brokaw: I think that there has a been a big shift, driven in part by the social upheaval of the '60s. But it is always hard to measure quantitatively something as subjective as moral values because it means you have to get into a generation's inner psyche to know their most private behavior, and it is difficult at times to measure that. I am not sure if we are any less honest today or any less moral today then we were 40 years ago, I am just sure we know more about the behavior of individuals.
Tom Brokaw: I had the unusual opportunity of living in a small town in South Dakota that had two radio stations, and because I knew the people who ran the station, and they knew me as a gabby teenager, I was able to, at the age of 16, get work nights reading the news and spinning records and learning how broadcast worked. At the time it was almost a lark; it was a good way to meet girls after basketball practice, and I had no idea I would end up making a career out of it.
Tom Brokaw: Yes, by the time the U.S. got involved with World War II, we had been attacked by Japan, and Hitler dominated most of Europe and was attacking on a daily basis Great Britain, our closest ally, so there are substantial differences between then and now -- for all the troubles of Bosnia, it has been mostly confined to that part of Europe.
Tom Brokaw: I am very grateful. It is that kind of response that made all the late nights and early mornings and missed fishing trips worthwhile while writing the book.
Tom Brokaw: I think that this generation is better than it gets credit for. If you look at the TV coverage of all the refugee camps along the Kosovo borders, you see hundreds of young Americans doing what they can to help that humanitarian catastrophe. It was this generation that invented this medium on which we are now chatting, which is one of the most empowering inventions in the history of mankind. So I think that this generation will get good credit 40 years from now. I just wish it would spend a little more time worrying about the common ground we all occupy and a little less time worrying about selfish issues.
Tom Brokaw: My personal experience with members of this generation, close family members and close friends. And then the men and women I began to meet in the '80s and '90s when I went to Normandy and Pearl Harbor for the anniversaries of these events. It really is a book written as a kind of payback, I suppose, for all they did for me, and I wanted to do something for them.
Tom Brokaw: I am a baseball fan, and in fact as I sit here doing the chat, I am watching the Cardinals and Milwaukee. I have been a Dodger fan all of my life, but a small confession: I never thought this would happen, but since I have lived in New York, I have gotten more attached to the Yankees.
Tom Brokaw: Going back to the beginning of my career, I was a young reporter on duty when the wires began to ring and I read on the air in Omaha the news that JFK had been assassinated, and I remember thinking at the end of that day that my life would never be the same again. It was an intersection in American life then, during the '60s -- covering the civil rights movement in the South and the antiwar protests also had a big impact on me. The three big stories that I will never forget are the fall of communism, the resignation of Nixon, and the explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
Tom Brokaw: I think that the generation of this book really is an extension of the generation of founding fathers. The genius of the American system is that it has so much political freedom and economic opportunity that it attracts the very best people from all over the world, so 1,000 years from now historians will look back with a sense of awe at the breathtaking achievements of this immigrant nation.
Tom Brokaw: Actually, I was involved with writing another book when this subject kept pushing through my consciousness. I was using it in the themes and speeches and dinner-table conversations, and I found that wherever I went and whoever I was talking to, people responded to this book or to the themes in this book, so I thought I better write it.
Tom Brokaw: Yes, there were two or three people that I wish I had spent more time with, one being Senator John Chaffee of Rhode Island. I also should have mentioned that Henry Kissinger was a member of this generation and a veteran of World War II -- many people don't realize that. My biggest regret is that I couldn't get to all the stories, because each is fascinating in its own way.
Tom Brokaw: I think when they were 18, Hitler was on the move across Europe and there was a very bitter debate about whether or not should get involved, but once they did get involved they learned their lessons well. I think they would tell this generation that you always have to be wary that these kinds of practices don't spread.
Tom Brokaw: No, I think that every generation sets its own pace and measures its own time by the achievements that generation assigns importance to. I do think that we are operating on fast forward too much of the time. Just because we have the ability to make telephone calls from anywhere, to retrieve information with a keystroke, to expect great enterprises to be finished in less than a week doesn't mean that we have to be hostage to the technology and the psychology that creates that kind of climate.
Tom Brokaw: My major concern as we head into the millennium is that we are spending too little time on issues of common concern and too much time on narrowly focused interests. The great hallmark of the greatest generation was that it knew when to subsume individual interests and join hands for the common good.
Tom Brokaw: I am going to write another book. I have not yet fully settled on the subject; unfortunately the response to this book has been so great that it is going to very difficult for me to reach this threshold the next time.
Tom Brokaw: It is that kind of response that has been the biggest surprise for me and the most gratifying -- younger people seeing in this book all that their parents or grandparents meant to the lives they have today.
Tom Brokaw: I think part of the change is that we are now more, much more, synergistic -- at NBC we have MSNBC and CNBC, and just today I appeared on all of them plus on MSNBC on the Internet.
Tom Brokaw: I am a voracious reader, and I have pretty eclectic tastes -- at the moment I am reading Henry Kissinger's latest book, YEARS OF RENEWAL, also Harold Bloom's SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN, and I just finished SINGLE AND SINGLE.
Tom Brokaw: I actually did think of putting them in and went back and looked at their lives and was going to include it in the section on Luis Armijo, but most of the code talkers returned to their reservations and lived traditional Hopi lives, so it was not, in my judgment, as representative of these other stories, but they are an amazing group. One of the things I learned is that some returned to their reservations and burned their uniforms because they take pride in peace, not war.
Tom Brokaw: I think that the long- and short-term lessons of history are that Europe has a kind of low boiling point about once every 60 years or so, and it should be in our interest to see that it doesn't boil over.
Tom Brokaw: There are really four periods of history that fascinate me -- the birth of our country; then, as a child of the West, I would have loved to cover the early explorers so I could have gotten to know the Native American culture as well; then I believe the most traumatic time in America was the Civil War, when we came perilously close to coming apart, so as a reporter that would have been a fascinating story to cover.
Tom Brokaw: One of the hopes that I had, and I must say that this hope has almost been exceeded, is that this book will be a kind of catalyst for more dialogue between generations about the lesson of that time and what we can be doing together now. When you think that more than a half million young men and some women lost their lives in World War II, you realize what a terrible price this country paid, but if they had not answered the call we would be living in a far different world today.
Tom Brokaw: It is a small club, so we all know each other very well, so it is fair to say there is a lot of mutual respect. For 25 years now, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and I have competed against each other; we have shared overnight plane rides to hellholes across the world; we have had some differences along the way -- but by and large, I think that we have a real mutual admiration society.
Tom Brokaw: I cannot tell you how flattered I am that you would take part of your evening to share your thoughts with me about this book. I have been saying that anchormen don't fake humility very well, so I will not try. But what I know in my heart and in my mind is that the success of this book is a tribute to the people whose stories I tell, not to the name of the author.
Posted March 28, 2000
Tom Brokaw's book is an easily read collection of biographies of men and women who were directly or indirectly involved in World War II. Each story spoke of an individual's contribution to the war effort, whether on the home front, or on the front lines. The secondary theme, which touched on the prejudices faced by certain minority groups of this generation, give an interesting perspective as to how our country has grown in the last 50 years. As I go through each day, I look for a person from this generation willing to share their experiences. Each one of them has a fantastic story to tell. The book peaked my desire to learn all I can about this tragic time in the world's history. The stories spanned every emotion, with many tears of both joy and sorrow for these brave and modest men and women.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I have heard about this book for years and I finally decided it was time to move it to the top of my To-Be-Read list. I have generally enjoyed Tom Brokaw's reporting style and this book is written consistent with his reporting. The stories were inspiring and helped me to understand my grandparent's generation more. I absolutely agree with Mr. Brokaw that they are a great generation and we could learn much from them. I especially appreciated the concerns raised by those interviewed about the younger generations. It was an interesting, if not absorbing read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2009
I gave this to my 82-year-old dad for Father's Day. Although he is not an avid reader, he thoroughly enjoyed this book, certainly for bringing back his own memories. He enjoyed the format---separate stories of individual people made it easy for him to pick up and enjoy for short periods of time.
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Posted September 4, 2007
I had to read this book for a summer assignment and I found that it was humanly impossible to read. For one, you know it's completely pointless. All the stories sound the same after reading the first section. It sounds like every war movie ever made. Guy falls in love, goes to war, and comes back to his girl. Oh, the stories about racism sound the same too. Or at least very similar, only the races change. The author did ruin a good oppurtunity with this book. He good have made an original piece which interested me for at least more than five minutes. Of course this is no offense to the WWII survivors and their families. I fully appreciate what they have done for this country. However, for this book I have nothing but discontempt.
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Posted February 26, 2002
This is one of the greatest books, I have ever read. A friend loaned me, 'The Greatest Generation Speaks' and that was so excellent it prompted me to purchase 'The Greatest Generation.' It was very well written, each story makes me feel as if I have come to know the person, it has also kindled an interest in WWII. I will definitely purchase more books on this subject. At times, this wonderful book made me cry.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 15, 2000
This book demonstrates how society should be. They fought for our country and many others as well. At a time in there lives where they should be having fun and going to college. They strugled through this hardship in world history, but in the end they learned many invaluable lessons. They also produced another great generation, the Baby Boomers. As the title says, they did nothing in this time of peril, but save the world. My aunt got this book for me and I enjoy. I think teenagers should read this book and understand that live was a lot harder then, than it is now.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2000
This is certainly a story that needs to be told. And told and told and told again. That is just what Tom has done here. I felt that I was reading the same thing over and over and over again. One of the problems Tom ran into is the fact that these men and women are all heros, and how many different ways can you spell hero? Tuff job. I love the fact that the book was written, and I think every American needs to read it, but I skipped a little bit of it near the end. Really 3 1/2 starsWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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